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Human milk oligosaccharides: Mama’s sweet immunological secrets

On 10th September 2018, Ling Xiao publicly defended her PhD thesis highlighting that human milk oligosaccharides (HMOS) may benefit the infants’ health through supporting the development of a healthy balanced immune system in early life, fit to adapt to danger signals for the inside and outside.

The immune system of infants still needs to develop

Since the immune system early in life still needs to develop, newborns are more susceptible for infections and prone to allergy development. This immaturity compromises their responsiveness to vaccination and may even be related to the development of auto immune diseases.

Priming a proper balanced immune system in early life is of great importance for the development of infant’s health.

Human milk is an important nutritional factor for the immune system development

Breastfeeding is an important nutritional factor for the immune system development
One of the environmental factors that interact with the immune system and drives the immune development in early life is the microbiome. Both the development of infant’s immune system as well as the gut microbiome can be influenced by nutritional factors during early life. Human milk is the very first nutrition and the best nutrition for infants. Unique for human milk is the fascinating complexity of human milk oligosaccharides. These oligosaccharides affect the growth of so-called “beneficial” bacteria in the gut, and have different direct interactions with immune cells, epithelial cells and even neurons.

The unique mixture of human milk oligosaccharides may benefit the infant’s health through developing an optimal microbiota composition and support a healthy balanced immune system in early life that is fit to adapt to danger signals for the inside and outside.

The findings of this thesis may contribute to the understanding and use of specific oligosaccharides structures for supporting infant’s immune responsiveness to vaccination, and the prevention and/or treatment of immune related disorders such as allergies and autoimmunity. In addition, these structures should be part of infant milk formula for those children that do not have access to human milk.

Ling Xiao’s promotors were Prof. dr. Johan Garssen, Professor Immunopharmacology at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Utrecht University and Research Director Immunology, Danone Nutricia Research, The Netherlands and Prof. dr. Gert Folkerts, Professor in Pharmacology at the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Utrecht University. Co-promotors were dr. Belinda van ‘t Land, Senior Scientist Immunology Danone Nutricia Research, affiliated at University Medical Centre Utrecht/Wilhelmina Children’s Hospital and dr. Bernd Stahl, director Human Milk Research, Danone Nutricia Research.